“Kill it!” came the cry, followed by a loud smack, the sound of the flat side of a large metal blade hitting solid wood. Alex and I were in the middle of a Thai cooking class and Noi, our usually soft-spoken instructor, was teaching us how to smash garlic.
The "kill it" technique, which we saw several times each evening, prompted giggles from the class, especially if a stray piece of garlic or onion went flying through the air to land on one of the cooks-in-training. “Sorry,” Noi would smile sheepishly, reverting back to his gentle persona. After a few days of taking classes with Noi, however, I began to detect a slight twinkle in his eye when one of the gooey pieces stuck.
Alex and I had chosen the class at Time for Lime in based on a few criteria: its location on Koh Lanta, Thailand, a beautiful island we wanted to visit, and its good reviews on Tripadvisor. When we discovered that the profits from the cooking class went to support Time for Lime's animal shelter for cats and dogs, we were completely won over.
Never ones to do things halfway, we booked three evenings of cooking courses during our trip, figuring the repetition would help us learn enough that we might actually be able to put our new skills to use back in Denmark. Plus, since the dishes changed daily, we had trouble picking just one day—how could we choose between papaya salad on Tuesday, chicken red curry on Wednesday, and padt Thai on Thursday? In the end, we spent 16½ hours in class and made no fewer than 14 different dishes (four dishes per day plus two extras). When we took home our curry-splattered aprons on Thursday night, we felt we’d earned them.
Each evening, the class started off with a 30-minute introduction to Thai food and its basic flavors and ingredients. After the intro, we would file into the gleaming kitchen, which was already prepped with a chopping board, knife, and tasting spoon for each person, as well as all of our needed ingredients in a bowl. The kitchen could fit up to 18 people, nine along each side of the steel tables, with our instructor at one end.
On our second and third days, we skipped the intro and instead chose another dish to make; our private lessons learning how to cook spring rolls and fried rice were definitely among the highlights of the three days. If I had any complaints about the course, it would be the lack of flexibility. For example, it was a little bit of a bummer that we had to stick to the pre-set menu when we would have liked to learn how to make a Thai dessert. But that was a very minor complaint.
After the intro, the first thing we would learn how to make was curry paste. Noi would demonstrate proper chopping, slicing, and smashing techniques—yelling “kill it!” was a way of warning those nearby to duck. After Noi's demo, we would get to work. For those with poor knife skills (ahem), it started off as slow work. I would like to think that my knife skills improved slightly; I even received an approving nod from Noi on day three.
We would take our chopped ingredients to the mortar at the end of the table and trade off using the heavy pestle to mash everything together—much tougher than it looks! Each night we divided the class in half and competed to see who could make the smoothest paste in 20 minutes. Our pastes were then handed off to one of the assistants to finish off. An expert curry-maker can make a good curry paste in about 20 minutes, but ours were nowhere close to reaching the right consistency.
After the curry paste, we would cook our first two dishes, a soup and salad or appetizer. For each dish, Noi would demonstrate how to make it from start to finish, and would pass around the result in a small bowl so that we could all dip in our tasting spoons. He emphasized tasting our dishes often to determine whether they needed more of an element (salty, sweet, sour, or spicy), or were ready to serve. The amount of sugar that went into Thai food was quite a revelation—no wonder it’s so addictive.
When the first dishes were complete, we would plate our creations and go up to the dining room, where we finally got to tuck in. After a short eating (and drinking) break, we would go downstairs and make two more dishes, one of which would use our homemade curry paste.
One of the highlights of the course was using high flames to flash-fry a dish; for example, stir-fried basil. Noi would hold the pan and one-by-one we would toss our ingredients in, causing a huge flash of fire to burst into the air. I was a bit nervous so my wild tossing might have left a few ingredients on the floor. It was a great photo op, though.
It wasn’t until taking another cooking class in Laos, however, that I realized just how good our experience had been. In my Lao cooking course, our instructor didn’t finish the dishes so we had no way of knowing what they should taste like. At Time for Lime, we got to taste all of the instructor's dishes to have a good example to go off of. I also very much appreciated Noi’s incredible English skills, which helped a lot with learning.
While not extremely personalized, Time for Lime has perfected the cooking class formula. The pre-peeled garlic and onions, washed herbs, and cooked rice made cooking feel effortless. Each time we came back to our stations, they were pristine, reorganized, and the new ingredients for our next dishes had magically appeared. If only cooking (and cleaning up) was so easy in real life!
I’m not sure if the class made me a better cook in general, but for an intro to Thai food, it was just right. I have a sense of the basic ingredients used in Thai dishes and how they should taste. I know that a dish doesn’t need to burn your tongue with spice to be good, that it’s more about a balance between the different flavors. I appreciate the effort and muscle power that go into a decent homemade Thai curry. And I am definitely more confident with a big knife.
Note: I did not receive any incentive or request from Time for Lime to write this article; the opinions expressed are completely my own and I was inspired to write about the course because it was one of the highlights of my trip. You can read more stories about my time in Thailand here.